Sidney Poitier and Halle Berry

Peggy Sirota

Photographed by Peggy Sirota on Dec. 10 at Poitier’s home in Beverly Hills

BARRIER BREAKERS: One thing Sidney Poitier didn’t have in his leading-man heyday? Paparazzi. But on this December morning, Halle Berry, being Halle Berry, arrives at Poitier’s Beverly Hills home with her 2-year-old daughter Nahla — and four lensmen on her heels. As they exit the car, Nahla sees the men and begins crying; the audience Berry wanted for her daughter with Poitier doesn’t happen, as Nahla is whisked away by a nanny.

“Sidney is part of our history,” says a disappointed Berry, who otherwise seems unfazed. “He’s a legend, and one day I knew she would thank me for allowing her to be in his presence.”

And what a mark he has made. It was a watershed moment in Hollywood when Poitier won the best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963, becoming the first African American performer to do so. His victory, preceded by an Oscar nomination five years earlier for The Defiant Ones (1958), happened before Berry even was born. As a child, though, Berry eventually saw Lillies. “Wow. I was, even as a girl, madly in love,” she says. (To which Poitier jokes, “Now you tell me!”)

Although Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker would go on to win their own best actor Oscars,  it took 39 years for an African American actress to be recognized equally after Poitier’s win. That long wait wasn’t lost on Berry, who gave an emotional Oscar acceptance speech in 2002 for her role in Monster’s Ball  —  the same night Poitier received an honorary award from the Academy. “I was out of my mind, semi-conscious,” Berry says. “But it was almost as if Sidney had a light on his head because he was in the balcony and I saw him standing up, and I have that very clear memory.” Recalls Poitier: “I was elated. You have to understand what an important moment it was. We are all still looking for fundamental acceptance.”

Berry believes her own success came in part from watching Poitier way back when. “As a young black woman, it’s sad to say, I didn’t always have a real positive image of what a black man was,” she says. “My father left when I was young, and it was a very abusive situation. To see a man like Sidney, with such grace and dignity, inspired me. I held myself to a higher standard than I would have without him.”

And she has. “I have been impressed by all her career. She has a presence, and it registers onscreen; she is multidimensional,” Poitier says. He pauses. “I am 83 years old, and she is just at the blush of youth.” Berry laughs. “Forty-four is the blush of youth?” she asks. “I love that!”

As for that meeting with Nahla? It will still happen. “I was supposed to come over for Thanksgiving this year,” Berry says. Poitier points out, “There will be another one next year.” Explains Berry: “I have to bring my daughter back. She has to have this experience.”           

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